Monday, 29 January 2018

Review: 'Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong' by Angela Saini

I was a feminist before I knew it. The tenets of feminism were so integral to my life as a young woman it never came to me to truly question it. That is, until my first conversation with someone with other opinions, presenting me with "scientific facts" that undermined everything I thought was true. And so started a journey of reading and researching, digging through decades of misogynistic writing to get as close to the truth as I could. Angela Saini's Inferior came at just the right time and I'm incredibly glad to have read it. Thanks to Fourth Estate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/05/2017
Publisher: Harper Collins; Fourth Estate

From intelligence to emotion, for centuries science has told us that men and women are fundamentally different. But this is not the whole story. 
Shedding light on controversial research and investigating the ferocious gender wars in biology, psychology and anthropology, Angela Saini takes readers on an eye-opening journey to uncover how women are being rediscovered. She explores what these revelations mean for us as individuals and as a society, revealing an alternative view of science in which women are included, rather than excluded.
As I said, feminism is quite integral to my being. I also come from quite an academic background, which I always thoughts would be a boon. But there is no single truth when it comes to science and academia. Feminism and science are similar in that sense. They are an ongoing conversation, consistently working on improving themselves, adjusting to new discoveries and full of contention. Those who think scientific discourse is straitlaced and calm is completely wrong. Academics can get vicious, in their own way, and careers are destroyed in the process. Science is a fluid thing, a fact which, to some, disqualifies its findings. However, science has an enormous impact on society. Sometimes research even has more impact on society than on its own field! Freud is no longer an authority in psychology, yet almost every piece of literature and cinema is still deeply affected by it. The same happens with other research, especially now that the Internet easily disseminates it with clickbait-y headlines. I loved the way Saini addressed all of these issues in Inferior and it has definitely opened my eyes to my own response to new research on gender.

In Inferior Saini takes an honest and interested look at how science has discussed women, and especially the difference between women and men. She does so without forcing her own opinions onto the research or judging academics in advance. As such, this book is full of honest discoveries and realisations. I was stunned to find out that despite all of his forward-thinking, Darwin believed women were biologically less evolved than men, biologically made to stay at home, far away from books. I was amazed by how deftly Saini discusses opposing sides. The aim of Inferior is to do away with the idea that women are biologically inferior, but she does so not by outrightly claiming so and then finding theories that support her opinions. Rather she looks at both sides, lays out different arguments, and shows the potential weaknesses in both. Although Inferior doesn't cover everything I found it to be a very interesting read. It is impossible to really answer the question definitely, whether there is a difference between men and women, because the question itself is loaded. But books like Inferior make a good headstart in continuing the conversation.

Angela Saini does a brilliant job in Inferior. I have two family members who are physicists and whenever they talk I can feel my brain start hurting from the lingo. Yes, I am one of those Literature students and although Literary Theory terms are nothing to me, I am a complete novice in most scientific terms. But Saini manages to make the studies she explores gripping and accessible, whether it is the intricacies of the brain or the habits of nomadic tribes. Not once did I get distracted or bored while reading Inferior. Rather I found myself wanting more! I was also immensely impressed by how objective Saini remains throughout the entire book. Although she has her own opinions she doesn't allow those to prejudice her. It becomes really clear from the book that Saini herself is incredibly interested in this topic and that researching and writing it was also a journey for her. It makes reading Inferior a joyous experience and once I finished it I was ravenous for more. I will definitely be browsing through the bibliography to continue my research. Thank you Angela Saini for entertaining me, enlightening me and educating me!

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I enormously enjoyed reading Inferior. Despite its content, Saini manages to make this an entertaining and gripping read, easy to understand and challenging to grapple with. I'd recommend this to anyone interested both in science and in the history of women.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Review: 'Swansong' by Kerry Andrew

I only spent a year in Scotland but I fell in love with its rugged charm and haunting nature. Ever since that year I have been looking for more books set in Scotland, especially because I adore its folk takes and culture. So a folk song adaptation set in the Scottish Highlands? Count me in! Swansong looked to be right up my street so of course I had to check it out. Thanks to Jonathan Cape and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/01/2018
Publisher: Vintage; Jonathan Cape
In this stunningly assured, immersive and vividly atmospheric first novel, a young woman comes face-to-face with the volatile, haunted wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. 
Polly Vaughan is trying to escape the ravaging guilt of a disturbing incident in London by heading north to the Scottish Highlands. As soon as she arrives, this spirited, funny, alert young woman goes looking for drink, drugs and sex – finding them all quickly, and unsatisfactorily, with the barman in the only pub. She also finds a fresh kind of fear, alone in this eerie, myth-drenched landscape. Increasingly prone to visions or visitations – floating white shapes in the waters of the loch or in the woods – she is terrified and fascinated by a man she came across in the forest on her first evening, apparently tearing apart a bird. Who is this strange loner? And what is his sinister secret? 
Kerry Andrew is a fresh new voice in British fiction; one that comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting.
I'm a big fan of Magical Realism, it is one of my favourite genres. When done well, it can lift an "ordinary" story into the extraordinary, adding beautiful touches that explain the inexplicable. Human life, especially our interior, mental life, is incredibly complex and confusing and it is difficult to encompass that in a straightforward narrative. By weaving magic into their stories, authors are able to explain things that otherwise they could not. Swansong does this, bringing metaphors and folktales to the story of a lost young woman. My eye was immediately drawn by Andrew's use of folk song and mythologies as inspirations for her book. Rife with history and culture, these folk songs, despite their age, still ring true in some way, strike a chord that can't be quieted. Just for this I find it worthwhile reading Magical Realism, to find new words to describe my thoughts, new images in which to capture my feelings. Swansong, with its dark and haunting imagery, does just that.

Swansong is quite a complicated read at times. The novel is a mix between a coming-of-age novel, a mystery thriller and magical realism. On the one hand Andrew's novel is grounded in the relatively realistic troubles of young Polly Vaughan whose life is slowly unravelling, but on the other hand Swansong soars above that, mixing the magical with the realist. Polly is not always a likeable character. Actually, most of the time you want to shake her and tell her to pull herself together. But then I remember myself at university, how terrifying it can be to suddenly have to stand on your own two feet, to deal with all the consequences of stupid actions and to push through it all somehow. So although you can't always empathise with Polly, you can understand her. Polly is just as in the dark as the reader, arriving in a completely different environment where things have been brewing under the surface for a while. As she slowly loses herself in the woods the question becomes, who will she be when she emerges?

Part of what intrigued me about Swansong was Kerry Andrew's writing. Initially I struggled getting into the mood of the novel, as Polly's narration is quite choppy. Her thoughts are quick and jumbled, she is panicking and stressing, torn between regretting the past and trying to forget it. Once I got into it, however, it really started working for me. Thanks to the writing you really get into the main character's head and it contrasted beautifully to the more magical and lyrical moments in the novel. One of the best things about this novel are Andrew's beautiful descriptions of the Scottish Highlands. Having been there, Swansong felt a little bit like a return to that landscape. Andrew takes you on a journey through a ravaged young woman's mind and although it isn't always comfortable or understandable, you do end up caring for her. Aside from her story, an ancient 'whodunnit' mystery pops up, adding to Polly's desire for answers and fear of the past. At time it almost feels like too much, but Andrew manages to strike a good balance.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I struggled with Swansong at times, something about Andrew's novel gripped me. Andrew allows you to sink away into her landscape and the drama she creates, until it becomes almost too much. I'd recommend it to those who enjoy Magical Realism and Suspense.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: 'Her Body and Other Parties' by Carmen Maria Machado

Sometimes you come to a book because you have heard so much about it that it becomes impossible to avoid. I often try to do so anyway, until the hype dies down and I can actually enjoy it naturally, without ridiculous expectations. I do the same for movies, which is why I still refuse to watch Easy A. The same was happening with Her Body And Other Parties, only that I was intrigued by its premise that I still went for it. As a consequence I had pretty high expectations of Machado, and she managed to meet each and every single one of them. Thanks to Serpent's Tail and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/12/2017
Publisher: Serpent's Tail

SHORTLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FICTION PRIZE 2017 'Brilliantly inventive and blazingly smart' Garth Greenwell 'Impossible, imperfect, unforgettable' Roxane Gay 'A wild thing ... covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi' New York Times  
In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women's lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice. A wife refuses her husband's entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store's dresses. One woman's surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest. Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and Other Parties is wicked and exquisite.
I adored this collection. There is simply no other way of putting it. What I adore about short story collections is how they allow authors the space to explore different topics, writing styles etc. while uniting them under a single theme or idea. Her Body and Other Parties does this beautifully. From the very first story, Machado turns a sharp eye to the female body and all that affects it. Growing up female often means that you grow up torn, constantly questioning and doubting your body and how it looks. Why is your hair like that? Why are your legs not thinner? How dare you wear a bikini if you're not skinny? What I myself have realised over time is that it takes very long before you actually come to appreciate your body, its strength and power. In Her Body and Other Parties Machado looks at the female body from different angles, at its ability to create life, to feel love and lust, to be used and abused, to house a fragile mind. She truly does something unique here and I will be returning to this collection often.

The stories in Her Body and Other Parties are stunning. From the first tale, 'The Husband Stitch', Machado drags you into the world of women's bodies and the tales these tell. In a sense 'The Husband Stitch' is the best example of that, as the narrator chronicles her life with her husband and the mystery of the ribbon around her neck, while relating tales she has heard of other women. There is a mystical suspense to the story which consistently leaves the reader with a sense of unease and fear, yet also a desperate desire to know, to look into the darkness and confront what you find there. This feeling continues throughout all the stories, whether it's the tragically lyrical 'Mothers' or the horrifying 'Eight Bites'.The collection's last story, 'Difficult at Parties' is a perfect finale for Her Body and Other Parties, combining Machado's clear-eyed observations, a sense of lurking unease, and a revelation that feels like a punch in the throat. 

Carmen Maria Machado weaves magic with her words in Her Body and Other Parties. Usually I don't like it when blurbs draw connections between new authors and well-established "Greats" because it sets unfair and impossible expectations. In this case, however, those comparisons are completely justified. I was struck by how much the spirit of Her Body and Other Parties did indeed remind me of Angela Carter. Not because of its theme or topics, but because of the bravado and inventiveness with which Machado writes. These stories are a tour-de-force, each taking a different approach, working with a different style, and yet bringing home its point with a gentle forcefulness. You have a story like 'The Husband Stitch' which is filled with little asides, instructing readers how to "perform" certain emotions and events in case they're reading the story out loud. There is 'Especially Heinous', one of my personal favourites, which reads like an episode guide for Law & Order: SVU but with completely new and wildly outrageous stories. 'The Resident' feels like a psychological thriller, while 'Inventory' configures itself both as a memoir of relationships as well as a dystopian story. And throughout it all Machado's writing is sharp and precise, ranging between beautifully descriptive and provocatively uncanny. 

Her Body and Other Stories has so much to offer to a reader willing to dive in, no holds barred. Each story will throw up a different question to which there is perhaps no immediate answer. But that is what good books are supposed to do, make you wonder and doubt, reassess and discover. Her Body and Other Stories will make an incredible addition to anyone's bookshelf!

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

I loved Her Body and Other Parties and for once think that the hype is completely justified. There are not enough words to praise this collection and what it tries to do. I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to be surprised and shocked, engaged and horrified, provoked and soothed. GO READ THIS BOOK!

Review: 'The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock' by Imogen Hermes Gowar

I'm not going to lie, the first thing I noticed about this book was the fact 'mermaid' is in the title. Although not my favourite mythical creature, I do have a soft spot for mermaids and their plight. But then what intrigued me more was the hint of the different sides of 18th century London Imogen Hermes Gowar was planning to explore. So I dived into this novel fearlessly and was enormously rewarded by it. Thanks to Vintage, Harvill Secker and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. DateL 25/01/2018
Publisher: Vintage; Harvill Secker

A spellbinding story of curiosity, love and obsession from an astonishing new talent. 
One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. 
As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess? 
In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.
It wasn't until the very end of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock that I think I finally understood the message of the novel. Most books end up discussing that greatest topic of all, the human condition, the why and wherefore of human existence. Thankfully there is no answer or solution to that topic, hence why we keep getting new and brilliant novels. In the end, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a novel about, as the blurb says, 'curiosity and obsession'. What happens when you spend your whole life chasing something, a dream, a cargo, a house, a position in society, and then you don't get it? And what if you do? Are there possibilities you're not seeing, consequences you're not imagining,  adventures you're not undertaking, just because you're obsessed with a certain plan or idea? It wasn't until the end of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock that I saw that all the novel's different story lines come together to pose this question. And the way in which Gowar does so makes the journey across her novel's pages all the more worth it. Diving into her characters, into 18th century London was an experience!

What I love about the title of this novel is that it doesn't give much away, but once you've read the novel you realise it's a perfect representation of the novel. On the one hand there is the fantastical and the magical, both of the mermaid and of the surface lives of some of the characters. It all seems charmed and beautiful, until you look below the surface. And then, on the other hand, there is the hard, historical fact of the lives of the novel's characters. The fact is that, despite the constant development and "improvement", living in the 18th century in London was no fun for most. Gowar addresses the conflicting roles of women in London's society, how delicate their position is, how easily they are taken advantage of, how far they can fall. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock moves between the narration of different characters, each of whom show their own stories through the third person. Whether it's the courtesans, the businessmen or the servants, each get a chance to tell their story and share their view. For some the pace of the novel may be too slow, or the plot may be too broad, but if you take your time with this novel, if you let it work its magic, it will be an incredibly worthwhile reading experience.

One of the major pluses of this novel is Imogen Hermes Gowar's writing. From the moment you start The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock you feel utterly immersed in 18th century London. The amount of detail that Gowar works into her writing without making it obvious is astounding. There is truly a sense that you can smell the cakes and the streets, feel the heat of fires and cold of winds, hear the rustle of gowns and carriages rolling past. Historical Fiction has the difficult task of mixing history with fiction, but Gowar manages to give you both without betraying either. Her research shows itself in how effortless she imparts knowledge to you. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is enormous, nearly 500 pages long, and in part this is because Gowar takes her time. The plot meanders at times, there are subplots that aren't necessarily relevant to the main story of the mermaid or Mrs. Hancock, but each does bring something to the reading experience. I would have liked some more closure on one or two of them, to see the story either clearly brought to an end or finished enough to allow the reader to imagine an end for themselves.

I give this novel..

4 Universes!

I adored The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. It is a sumptuous novel that takes you on a stroll through 18th century London while showing you a set of characters trying to do their best. Gowar's writing is gorgeous and her characters are rough and real. I can't wait to read her next book! I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and those willing to work for their Magical Realism.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review: 'The Girl in the Tower (Winternight #2)' by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy, #2)I started my review of The Bear and the Nightingale in all-caps, violently demanding more. I would have done the same for The Girl in the Tower, except that I don't think Caps Lock can actually express my desire accurately. I devoured the first book in the Winternight trilogy in a single night and, unfortunately, did exactly the same for The Girl in the Tower. Then I spent some time just happily staring at it, deeply satisfied. In the paragraphs below I have tried to put my fangirling into words, hopefully they make sense. Thanks to Ebury Publishing, Del Rey and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/01/2018
Publisher: Del Rey; Ebury Publishing

For a young woman in medieval Russia, the choices are stark: marriage or a life in a convent. Vasya will choose a third way: magic... 
The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile bandits roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping its daughters. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince and his trusted companion come across a young man riding a magnificent horse. 
Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior's training, recognises this 'boy' as his younger sister, thought to be dead or a witch by her village. But when Vasya proves herself in battle, riding with remarkable skill and inexplicable power, Sasha realises he must keep her secret as she may be the only way to save the city from threats both human and fantastical...
The second book in a trilogy often has the hardest job of all. On the one hand you need to keep readers entertained and invested, but you can't just do the same thing as you did in the first book. You also need to prepare the board for the epic finale still to come without making your moves too obvious. Not many sequels manage to do all this, but The Girl in the Tower does so beautifully. Arden advances the plot, widens the world within which her characters move and, above all, allows her characters to grow and develop! While The Bear and the Nightingale beautifully showed Vasya growing from child to girl, The Girl in the Tower shows her growing up and becoming a woman. And with that Arden gives stunning commentary on the role of women in society. I hadn't expected the gentle ferocity (this is not a paradox, trust me!) with which Arden articulates the limits upon women and the pain this causes. She doesn't force this realisation upon her readers, doesn't shout it in their faces, but rather shows it throughout the novel, expertly following that maxim 'show, don't tell'.

Vasya was one of my favourite heroines of the last year and this is even more true after reading The Girl in the Tower. Although Arden moves between different narrators into this book, showing us the minds of Vasya, Sasha and even Morzoko at times, Vasya remains the heart of the Winternight Trilogy. As I said above, Arden shows her developing and changing without betraying who she is as a character. She remains spirited and passionate, with a heavy serving of stubborn, but also deeply dedicated to her family. But she also learns and grows. While The Bear and the Nightingale's action was limited largely to Vasya's father's estate, The Girl in the Tower sees her literally riding into the big wide world, dressed as a boy. While she faced dangers back home, greater threats await her and she has to adapt to meet them, which happens naturally. Arden builds up her world believably, introducing, in some cases re-introducing, more and more power players without losing the plot. The stakes increase as well, with more being at risk for both Vasya and those she loves, but Arden keeps it realistic. Once I finished The Girl in the Tower I contemplated for a bit and realised there is literally nothing I could even contemplate complaining about in this book. In a way this makes my job incredibly difficult since there are only so many ways you can express your love for something before you look crazy, but I'd rather have it this way than any other.

Arden continues to bowl me over with her books. Whether she has me gripping my sheets during action sequences or actually giggling like a teenager over certain moments, Arden is continually evoking something in her readers. Her descriptions of Russian nature and Moscow's architecture are stunning and her research into Russian folklore and history really shows itself in how natural the two flow alongside each other. In some ways The Girl in the Tower is the perfect historical fantasy book, grounded enough in fact to allow the fiction to shine. Arden strikes a fine balance between a modern and a mythical tone. Her heroine is an intrinsically modern one, coming up with phrases like the one below:
'Bogatyry ride the world, rescuing maidens. Why not I?'
On the other hand there remains that sense of the old, the ancient and the legendary. Certain descriptions, certain turns of phrases, they create the perfect mood in which magic is not only possible, but natural. In The Girl in the Tower Arden also continues her dance across the fine line that is romance. There are enough hints there to keep everyone content, but Arden never sacrifices her heroine or her plot to the desire for A Grand Romance.

Actually, I have thought of one criticism: why is it already over? Why couldn't it just go on forever? I need that third book straightaway. Although, maybe take your time with it, Katherine. I don't think I can handle this trilogy's future end quite yet.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I literally couldn't have asked for more from The Girl in the Tower. Everything I wanted to see and things I didn't even know I wanted, Arden delivers in this book. It is a perfect continuation of the Winternight trilogy and has certified her as one of my favourite contemporary writers. Please do yourself a favour and read this book!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Short Review: 'Jane on the Brain' by Wendy Jones

I'm unashamedly a Janeite! I love Jane Austen, her books fill me with happiness and I low-key adore every adaptation of her books, even when I don't really want to. (I'm looking at you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!) And I'm not alone. We're a force to be reckoned with, spanning generations and continents. But what is it about Jane Austen and her books that makes us so happy? Countless of books have been written about her unique talent to make us feel as we do, and I try to read a fair share of them. So of course I had to read Jane on the Brain as well. Thanks to Pegasus Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/12/2017
Publisher: Pegasus Books

Why is Jane Austen so phenomenally popular? Why do we read Pride and Prejudice again and again? Why do we delight in Emma’s mischievous schemes? Why do we care that Anne Elliot of Persuasion suffers? We care because it is our biological destiny to be interested in people and their stories—the human brain is a social brain. And Austen’s characters are so believable, that for many of us, they are not just imaginary beings, but friends whom we know and love. And thanks to Austen's ability to capture the breadth and depth of human psychology so thoroughly, we feel that she empathizes with us, her readers. Humans have a profound need for empathy, to know that we are not alone with our joys and sorrows. And then there is attachment, denial, narcissism, and of course, love, to name a few. We see ourselves and others reflected in Austen’s work. Social intelligence is one of the most highly developed human traits when compared with other animals How did is evolve? Why is it so valuable? Wendy Jones explores the many facets of social intelligence and juxtaposes them with the Austen cannon. Brilliantly original and insightful, this fusion of psychology, neuroscience, and literature provides a heightened understanding of one of our most beloved cultural institutions—and our own minds.
Jane on the Brain takes a unique approach to Jane Austen's books by bringing Wendy Jones' expertise in neuroscience and psychology to the conversation. Jones doesn't rely too heavily on literary analysis, but rather analyses the keen insight with which Austen crafts her characters. Jones takes an interaction, like, for example, Darcy and Elizabeth meeting unexpectedly at Pemberley, and dissects how Austen describes their responses. Although Austen did not intend to write psychological novels per se, Jones successfully shows how her sharp perceptiveness and interest in human behaviour allowed her to not only make us care for her characters and Austen herself, but to also feel like she cares for us, as if she understands us. This was one of the main lessons I learned from this book, that Austen's power lies in us, the readers, feeling understood and appreciated. And Jones shows us just how she accomplishes that in Jane on the Brain.

Jane on the Brain requires its readers, especially those like me who engage a lot in Jane Austen literary theory, to reset their expectations a little bit. As I said, this is not "normal" Austen commentary or analysis. Wendy Jones blends together different disciplines in this book, introducing her readers to concepts like Theory of the Mind, as well as the anatomy and processes of the brain. If you don't adjust your expectations, it will be difficult to get into the book. Jones does her best to limit the jargon in her book and not overwhelm the reader, but there is still a lot of information and theory to take in. I personally really enjoyed this and it added an extra layer to my appreciation of Austen. I can see Jane on the Brain being an excellent teaching tool as well, both for the neurosciences and English literature. If you're willing to buckle down and learn something new, then Jane on the Brain is definitely for you.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

Jane on the Brain gives its readers a completely new insight into Austen's writing and into her power to make us feel. Although her more scientific approach may not be for everyone, there is a lot learn from and think about in Jane on the Brain. I will definitely be revisiting this book in the future.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: ‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

Ever since my father introduced me to Star Wars as a child I have been in awe of the stories that Science-Fiction can tell, when done right. Similarly to Fantasy, it allows authors to discuss worldly problems in a foreign setting, highlighting their hypocrisy or methods. Once you mix Science-Fiction with Dystopia you have an incredibly powerful tool with which to reassess our world. It is with that in mind I started reading The Book of Joan and yet I still wasn't prepared for what was to come. Thanks to Canongate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 18/01/2018
Publisher: Canongate
In the near future, world wars have transformed the earth into a battleground. Fleeing the unending violence and the planet’s now-radioactive surface, humans have regrouped to a mysterious platform known as CIEL, hovering over their erstwhile home. The changed world has turned evolution on its head: the surviving humans have become sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures floating in isolation, inscribing stories upon their skin.
Out of the ranks of the endless wars rises Jean de Men, a charismatic and bloodthirsty cult leader who turns CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state. A group of rebels unite to dismantle his iron rule - galvanised by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her.
A riveting tale of destruction and love found in the direst of places, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan raises questions about what it means to be human, the fluidity of sex and gender, and the role of art as a means for survival. It’s a genre-defying masterpiece that may very well rewire your brain.
 Where to start? Often I finish reading a book and I know exactly what I want to say about this, whether it's positive or negative. Sometimes a review already forms in my head while I'm reading. But there are some books where, after the last page, I just stare ahead, attempting to sort out my thoughts. The Book of Joan is one of those latter ones. So I'm going to try and answer some basic questions first. Yes, it is a Science-Fiction book. Yes, it is a Dystopian book. No, it isn't a straightforward book. Yes, there is a high chance you'll be puzzled by it at times. Yes, it will be a worthwhile experience reading it. Yes, this is a book about love. Confused yet? Good, now join me as I try and make sense of my thoughts.

 The Book of Joan is set in the not too distant future where the Sun has given up and the world has been ravaged by geostorms and atomic warfare. Hovering above Earth is CIEL, a space platform in which Jean de Men has brought together some of the richest and most talented people to live under his rule. Radiation has significantly impacted the human bodies to the point where they're sexless and hardly recognisable. On Earth, struggling survivors fight a desolate climate and attacks from above. All of this is important and yet it is also very much background noise. At the heart of the novel are the stories of Joan, a child-warrior who fought Jean de Men for Earth's sake, and Christine de Pizan, floating in CIEL and inscribing stories upon her own and others' skin in the hope of retaining some humanity. With their stories Yuknavitch tries to explore what it is that makes us human, which drives define us above all, and where we have gone wrong. 

The novel swims with themes and philosophies. The Book of Joan is a cry for environmentalism, full of the pain of a dying and decaying world, an ode to the beauty of nature that is slowly being destroyed. Although quite obvious, it never felt too on the nose for me. Similarly, The Book of Joan is an exploration of love, sex and bodies. At times the book may be too crude in this exploration for some readers, as Yuknavitch unblinkingly analyses human impulses and bodies. But there is a beauty in how unrelenting she is, the way in which she shows Christine using her own body to tell stories, to feel, to express herself, by inscribing them upon her own skin. It may not be for everyone, it's not necessarily for me, but it is fascinating and definitely made me think about my own body and how I express myself with it, through it. It made me think about how we judge others by how they carry themselves, how they claim an identity through their bodies

The names of the two women at the heart of The Book of Joan give an indication of what inspired Yuknavitch to write this book. First there is Joan, clearly inspired by the story of Joan of Arc, the warrior-maiden inspired by God to defend her people and her country before she was declared a witch and burned. Then there is Christine de Pizan, an influential author in the 14th and 15th centuries. Although she initially wrote ballads, she engaged herself in literary debates and rose as a prominent voice on women's place in society. She also deeply criticised author Jean de Meun, author of La Roman de la Rose, another name you may recognise, for how he portrayed women. These two historical women, in their own way and in their own times, fought for the rights of women and their determination and strength is reflected in The Book of Joan. Whether it is through fighting or writing, it is important to have your voice heard. It was a fascinating take on these women, unlike any other "adaptation" I have ever read. And I think it did both a lot of justice.

Yuknavitch's writing in The Book of Joan is at times lyrical, at other times brutal. She switches between moments of intense beauty and heartbreak to horrible descriptions of warfare and horror. You can't have one without the other, she almost seems to say. From destruction comes creation, life from death. It is hard balance to strike but Yuknavitch strikes it beautifully. For me the novel took on something of an allegorical feel as I was reading it. On the one hand the plot is there and is what the book turns on, on the other hand  it is about much more than that. The characters could be stand-ins for philosophies or ideologies, the action an expression of our own history and potential future. THe Book of Joan will not be for everyone. One has to partially put one's expectations to the side and let the book do its thing. The bewildering, alien existence of those in CIEL, the struggle and hardship of those on Earth, it all comes together into a story that tries to convey the importance of love, of companionship, of understanding, of caring and of the power of standing up for what you believe in. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The Book of Joan will not be for everyone. It is both bleak and horrifying, as well as beautiful and heartening. It is a book you will question, struggle with, but (hopefully) emerge from with a different outlook on things, a new appreciation for our Earth and our selves. I'd recommend this to readers interested in Speculative Fiction and Dystopian Fiction.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Review: 'Bad Girls with Perfect Faces' by Lynn Weingarten

It has only been the past few years, almost simultaneously with ageing out of teenhood myself, that I truly allowed myself to indulge in Young Adult drama of the high school kind. The one where everyone is under eighteen and yet everyone speaks like they have the vocabulary of a mature grown-up. Sometimes this leads to me reading absolutely brilliant books, like Girls on Fire which rocked my world, or books that slightly let me down, like Girl in Snow. And so I continue with this genre, down this path of hit and miss, and Bad Girls with Perfect Faces is the latest to meet me on my way. Thanks to Egmont Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/01/2018
Publisher: Egmont Publishing; Electric Monkey
No one is good enough for Xavier. Not according to Sasha, his best friend. There's nothing Sasha wouldn't do to protect Xavier from getting hurt, especially by his cheating ex Ivy, who's suddenly slithered back into the picture. Worried that Xavier is ready to forgive and forget, Sasha decides to do a little catfishing. She poses as a hot guy online, to prove cheaters never change. 
But Sasha's plan goes wrong fast, and soon the lies lead down a path from which there's no return . . .
Bad Girls with Perfect Faces is the kind of book you devour in a single sitting, racing through the pages as time flies by, until it's done. And then you just sit there for a second, finally taking the time to actually consider what it is you've just read. A lot of things about Bad Girls with Perfect Faces are pretty straightforward, especially considering its genre. You've seen it before. boy and girl, or girl and girl, are best friends, only friends, or are they? And suddenly there is the ex again, who is a terrible person, making this a love triangle. Now our main girl has to protect her friend, but how? By doing something stupid, something she will definitely come to regret. And welcome to the downward spiral, as all the teenagers involved see their lives slipping down a slippery slope of silly mistakes and regrets. Why is this so entertaining, I ask myself as I read this same plot over and over again, breathlessly turning the pages. There is something addictive about the adrenaline-fuelled mess that is being a teenager, when everything feels dramatic, especially when it is in the hands of a gifted author who manages to make the plot feel new again. And that is the case with Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. It is by no means revolutionary, but Weingarten manages to make it exciting nonetheless. Was I surprised by the novel's plot twists? Not entirely, but did I enjoy going down this rabbit hole again? Definitely!

I always feel slightly dirty after books like Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. None of the characters are truly likeable, all stuck in that teen mindset where everything is horrendous and everything is about them. I saw another reviewer, Parajunkee, comment on how Bad Girls with Perfect Faces struck an odd balance between mature/immature throughout and I couldn't agree more. On the one hand Weingarten's characters are incredibly immature children with no thought for those around them, on the other hand some of the novel's themes, the emotions its characters felt, were surprisingly deep. However, I do think that the limits of the genre hold most of these novels back from really saying anything too profound. There is so much drinking, pill-popping, absentee parents, lack of school, sex and swearing that I hardly recognise it as the world of a seventeen-year old. Sure, that could be me, but it's still odd. Also, why are only the girls going down wrong paths, seemingly? Why are they the ones excelling at crazy while the boys remain floating, occasionally boringly, in calmer waters? Perhaps this is partially why I find the genre so fascinating, because it always comes back one way or another to the high drama of being a young girl, of being a growing woman loving and fearing and losing. And Bad Girls with Perfect Faces does capture the utter fear of losing something or someone perfectly.

I hadn't read Weingarten's wildly popular Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls so I didn't quite know what to expect going into Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. As I said above, I was sucked into the novel straightaway, she captured me in that way only YA fiction can. Weingarten excels at writing the kind of fiction that speeds up, where every sentence is leading to the next one. There were some things about the writing that threw me off, how one narrator's chapters were in first person and how another's were in third, which were probably done on purpose but felt a bit off. I really enjoyed how Weingarten incorporated social media messaging into the novel, tapping into how we're simultaneously more honest and more deceitful online. Towards the end of the novel a different narrator joined in and their narration really didn't work for me. Although I can see why Weingarten made certain choices regarding how they relayed their feelings it went too far over the immature/mature line for me and felt a bit dramatic. This kind of reflects on the whole end of the novel, where things seem to just get more and more convoluted past the point of the believable. However, I still couldn't put Bad Girls with Perfect Faces down and will definitely keep my eyes open for future books by Weingarten for that adrenaline kick her writing gives me.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed Bad Girls with Perfect Faces a lot, even if there were things here and there I didn't enjoy. The novel is a rush and will capture you straight away with its high drama and calmer moments of contemplation. The mess of teenhood is captured brilliantly and I'd recommend this to anyone who likes Young Adult and Suspense fiction.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Short Review: 'In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein' by Fiona Sampson

I knew of Frankenstein long before I actually read it. Like many others, I think, I had absorbed the story of the monster, of science gone wrong, through popular culture from an early age on. Frankenstein is a cultural staple, and yet it wasn't until university that I truly started appreciating the woman behind it, the girl, even, who created this cultural phenomenon. It is now 200 years since the novel's publication and interest in the novel and author are reawakening. In Search of Mary Shelley is part of that reawakening so of course I had to read it. Thanks to Serpent's Tail for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/01/2018
Publisher: Serpent's Tail; Profile Books

Mary Shelley was brought up by her father in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers of the day. Aged sixteen, she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, embarking on a relationship that was lived on the move across Britain and Europe, as she coped with debt, infidelity and the deaths of three children, before early widowhood changed her life forever. Most astonishingly, it was while she was still a teenager that Mary composed her canonical novel Frankenstein, creating two of our most enduring archetypes today. The life story is well-known. But who was the woman who lived it? She's left plenty of evidence, and in this fascinating dialogue with the past, Fiona Sampson sifts through letters, diaries and records to find the real woman behind the story. She uncovers a complex, generous character - friend, intellectual, lover and mother - trying to fulfil her own passionate commitment to writing at a time when to be a woman writer was an extraordinary and costly anomaly. Published for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, this is a major new work of biography by a prize-winning writer and poet.
Reading Frankenstein at university was what first brought Mary Shelley to the forefront of my mind. The novel is a masterpiece, carefully and intricately crafted, full of thoughts on human nature and tempestuous feelings of self. And this came from the mind of a nineteen-year old girl, recently eloped with a Romantic poet and the child of two philosophical heavyweights. I immediately adored her. One can't help but be fascinated by those who create masterpieces like Frankenstein. It is why Jane Austen has so many adoring followers, we readers want to get to know those whose writing touched us so deeply. For a long time Mary Shelley was very much hidden in the large shadow cast by her acquaintances, but renewed interest in her has allowed a large field of Mary-centred research to flower. In Search of Mary Shelley is a part of that, a book that tries to paint a picture of who this girl was, what kind of woman she became, and why.

Since my introduction to Mary Shelley started at university, I am used to reading about her in a certain, "academic" way. In Search of Mary Shelley is a refreshing break from that, with Sampson writing very casually and directly. She avoids academic lingo and doesn't really quote from any research into Mary. Rather, Sampson attempts to sketch a portrait of who Mary Shelley could have been based on details in her books, letters and journals, as far as those are available, as well as what is known of the time period. Because of the book's lack of references, it occasionally felt to me as if too much of it could be made up. The picture Sampson creates isn't necessarily a factual one, but very much a potential one. Perhaps Mary did feel this way, maybe that letter does reference an awareness of a larger cultural event, or possibly none of it is true. Although I enjoyed reading In Search of Mary Shelley I have been too spoiled by my time at university and felt the lack of supporting material for Sampson's claims. However, for someone wanting to get a sense of what Mary's inner life could have been like and what an asshole Percy Shelley at times was, In Search of Mary Shelley is an excellent starting point!

I give this book...

3 Universes!

In Search of Mary Shelley offers a fascinating insight into who Mary Shelley could have been. Although Sampson doesn't quote much from academic research and allows herself some artistic freedom, it is a worthwhile read for those who want to get a sense of Mary.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Review: 'Everless' by Sara Holland

35883046I have been a Fantasy fan all of my life. There is something about Fantasy that makes it the perfect genre for confronting modern-day concerns as well as allowing for some beautiful world-building and escapism. It is a genre I love and I have partly been spoiled by genius fairy tales and genre icons like The Lord of the Rings, to the point where I am now often quite hesitant to pick up YA Fantasy books in the fear of being disappointed. However, Everless' blurb and beautiful cover convinced me to throw my fear in the wind and jump right in. Thanks to Hachette Children's Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/01/2018
Publisher: Hachette Children's Group; Orchard Books
Time is a prison. She is the key. Packed with danger, temptation and desire - a perfect read for fans of The Red Queen.
In the land of Sempera, the rich control everything - even time. Ever since the age of alchemy and sorcery, hours, days and years have been extracted from blood and bound to iron coins. The rich live for centuries; the poor bleed themselves dry.
Jules and her father are behind on their rent and low on hours. To stop him from draining himself to clear their debts, Jules takes a job at Everless, the grand estate of the cruel Gerling family. 
There, Jules encounters danger and temptation in the guise of the Gerling heir, Roan, who is soon to be married. But the web of secrets at Everless stretches beyond her desire, and the truths Jules must uncover will change her life for ever ... and possibly the future of time itself.
As said above, I go into a lot of YA Fantasy books with a sense of trepidation nowadays. The tropes abound, the cliches are stifling and the world-building is unimaginative. I know, I sound like a complaining old lady but I have gotten sick of reading the same story over and over again, knowing where a novel is going to go after less than a 100 pages. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Everless. I enjoyed the novel's main idea, your life time being bound to your blood and your blood being capable of becoming iron coins. It is an idea that allows an author to explore class and capitalism in a very interesting idea and Holland does do so here and there in the novel. Although there is a bit of an info-dump at the beginning of the novel, Holland starts her novel off very well by getting the reader attached to Jules. And that, I think, is where one of the strengths of this novel lies. You do genuinely find yourself caring for Jules, becoming as interested in her past as she is, as concerned about those she cares about as she is. And Everless is also actually concerned with her and her life, rather than in setting her up with some handsome prince or having her meet some other random genre trope. It's what makes the novel fly by and makes some of the clunkier examples of world-building fall by the wayside.

At the heart of Everless lies Jules' stay at the eponymous estate in her hope to find answers to some burning questions. I liked Jules' dedication to saving her father and to finding answers, even as the questions she asks change as the situation around her changes. That is what I loved about Everless: it starts out straightforward and then grows into something much more complex. Initially, Jules just wants to earn money so her father can stay alive. By the end of the novel Jules finds herself at the centre of web that has become incredibly intricate. Holland manages to complicate her novel without making the reading of it complicated. She adds twists and turns, managing to subvert some of the genre's conventions as she goes, but never does Everless lose track of who Jules was at the beginning. I think that why it is so easy for the reader to get sucked in by Everless and I know that I personally can't wait for the next book in the series to come out! Is it 2019 yet?

I really liked Sara Holland's writing in Everless. She doesn't linger on grandiose descriptions or dramatised conversations but rather lets the needs of the plot drive the novel forward. On the one hand this means that some events seem to happen very quickly, but on the other hand this means there is no chance to get bored. Although here and there I would have maybe appreciated some extra time to get to know some new characters or feel the consequences of certain events, I also liked the drive forward. Everless also has some stunning visuals and moments which really stick in your mind. Holland has a knack for adding in little details and little descriptions here or there that deftly support her world-building and characterisations and make the novel feel more realistic. That may seem like a strange thing to ask for when it comes to Fantasy, but actually Fantasy novels live or die by how real they are. If you can't imagine this world, then how can you believe in it enough to want to read about it? Everless felt real in a Magical Realism way, almost, where something ordinary like paying rent is elevated to something different, where a young girl's made up childhood stories are maybe something completely different. It is this balance between the fantastical and the real that will make you want to keep reading Everless.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I raced through Everless and am consequently heartbroken that the next book isn't coming out for another year, apparently. Although engaging in some of its genre's tropes, Everless and Sara Holland will consistently surprise you. I'd recommend this to fans of YA Fantasy ready to trust again!

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review: 'No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters' by Ursula K. Le Guin

Prepare yourself for something truly dreadful: I had never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before No Time to Spare. I know! Somehow her Earthsea books were nowhere to be seen during my childhood and even later I never got around to it, despite actually loving Studio Ghibli's Tales of Earthsea. I didn't even know she had also written speculative fiction and short stories until this particular book. Once I saw No Time to Spare I figured it would be the perfect way to dip by toe into the deep lake that is Ursula K. Le Guin's writing and see how it felt. Surprisingly comfortable and uproariously hilarious, was my conclusion. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Court and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/12/2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Court

Ursula K. Le Guin on the absurdity of denying your age: “If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.”
On cultural perceptions of fantasy: “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”
On breakfast: “Eating an egg from the shell takes not only practice, but resolution, even courage, possibly willingness to commit crime.”
Ursula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s online writing, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her unceasing wonder at it: “How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”
Coming in as a novice meant I had no real idea what to expect from No Time to Spare or Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only did I not really know what it is she had written, I had no idea how she wrote her blog. All I knew was that No Time to Spare was Non-Fiction, but I had no real indication whether this was going to be funny, poignant, one long rant, sad, or straight up boring. Turns out it was all of that except the latter! The purpose of this blog right here is pretty straight-forward. I review books, and if I'm not doing that I'm probably talking about something else book-related. But for  Le Guin her blog was almost like a journal where she carefully crafted entries about anything that was on her mind. This means the topics of the blog posts collected in No Time to Spare cover almost everything, whether it's ageing, cats, eggs, feminism, belief vs. facts, cats, Fantasy, the Great American Novel, war, swearing, and again, cats. By the end of No Time to Spare you have truly gained an insight into Ursula K. Le Guin, how she thinks, how she can joke and be serious at the same time. You've been taken on a tour of her mind and it is fascinating.

Like I said above,  No Time to Spare covers a massive amount of different topics and it would be impossible for me to discuss all of them and do them all justice. So I thought I'd pick two or three of her blog posts to discuss instead. In 'Having My Cake', Le Guin considers her craft, namely that of writing, as well as her youthful confusion about not being able to 'have your cake, and eat it too'. Her confusion came from the word 'have' which is often used as a synonym for 'eat' when it comes to food. What made this post so interesting was how she analysed her own confusion, how her passion for words and their infinite potential and complexity shone through her writing, as well as her joy at having found a way around her confusion. That post made me want to write. In 'A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters' Le Guin analyses the difference between the grouping of men and women, using this as a way to discuss each group's place and power in the world. One sentence stood out to me in particular:
'Living in "a man's world", plenty of women distrust and fear themselves as much or more than men do.'
In a simple sentence and in straightforward prose Le Guin can make a devastating point. Because it's true, we women grow up distrusting ourselves, second-guessing other women until we truly meet them and join them. This post made me want to call my female friends. In 'Belief in Belief' Le Guin discusses the difference between believe and fact, and how, even when she wrote that post, the two were becoming intermingled. Her positioning of 'belief' and 'knowledge' as two different things, neither mutually exclusive but also not the same, was so elucidating and straightforward that I would make this post recommended reading for pretty much everyone. That post made me want to go out and have a discussion. And then, at the end of No Time to Spare, is 'Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert', which is a stunning post about nature filled with utterly beautiful and evocative writing. I have never wanted to go outside more than after this post.

Le Guin's writing needs no praise or analysis from me. What I was trying to show above was how each of the posts I read did something to me. They made me want to do something, whether it was go outside and watch the birds, play with my cat, read a book, or get angry and then figure out why. Although it doesn't trigger the emotions a fiction book may do, it is also far from leaving you unmoved. With her humorous and no-nonsense style, Le Guin gets to the heart of the matters that concern her and reveals beauty there, or a lack of. And this is where the collections tagline comes in as well: 'Thinking About What Matters'. The different blog posts show Le Guin struggling with themes over years, coming back to various topics over time and having another go at them. Seeing a brilliant mind work, in that way, is a treat in and of itself. Le Guin allows us a fascinating glimpse into her mind with her blog posts, both those collected in No Time to Spare and those on her blog. It's like having a conversation with your grandmother, who after a long life has wisdom and jokes to impart, memories and advice, all with a wink and a nudge but also a caring concern for the world you live in. No Time to Spare was a joy to read.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I adored the variety of topics explored by Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare and many of her observations caused me to rethink some of my own opinions. It's a delight to read and never once gets boring or predictable. I'd recommend it to fans of Ursula K. Le Guin and those interested in short non-fiction.

Review: 'In the Midst of Winter' by Isabel Allende

I think The House of Spirits was the first book by Allende I read and it captured me straight away. Isabel Allende's books filled me with a sense of wonder and magic from the moment I was old enough to read them. There was something about her style that just worked for me. I also adored her YA-trilogy, Eagle and Jaguar. However, I lost track of Allende and her new releases, until, that is, I saw In the Midst of Winter and my interest was immediately piqued again. Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/11/2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Scribner
Worldwide bestselling “dazzling storyteller” (Associated Press) Isabel Allende returns with a sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that journeys from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil.
In the Midst of Winter begins with a minor traffic accident—which becomes the catalyst for an unexpected and moving love story between two people who thought they were deep into the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story that moves from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil, sparking the beginning of a long overdue love story between Richard and Lucia.
Exploring the timely issues of human rights and the plight of immigrants and refugees, the book recalls Allende’s landmark novel The House of the Spirits in the way it embraces the cause of “humanity, and it does so with passion, humor, and wisdom that transcend politics” (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post). 
In the Midst of Winter will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Allende's fiction has always addressed the issues in her home continent, and especially her home country of Chile. As she was related to Chilean president Salvador Allende, the CIA-backed coup against him and the turmoil it caused in her country also affected her personally. These experiences reflect differently in her various books and I was intrigued to see how it came to the forefront in In the Midst of Winter. At the heart of this novel are the issues of immigration, refugees and human rights, issues which are still incredibly timely and relevant. In the Midst of Winter focuses on these through the stories of its characters and this allows Allende to highlight the hardship and suffering refugees go through. Some of the chapters, especially in relation to Evelyn's story, are heartbreaking and not for the fainthearted. Some of Allende's descriptions are cruelly truthful and she doesn't let you look away, no matter how much you might like to. But despite the horror she describes, Allende also shows the kindness and bravery of people in the face of such horror. How people help each other, how they care for the old and sick, the young and needy, how love doesn't heal every wound but makes some of the scars easier to bare. That side of In the Midst of Winter is truly inspirational.

Allende's In the Midst of Winter brings together three different characters in the middle of a blizzard in Brooklyn. Thrown together seemingly by chance, they exchange their stories and share experiences as they try to solve a rather immediate problem. Richard, stuffy academic that he seems, hides a deeply shameful past in Rio de Janeiro; Evelyn, undocumented and scared has survived horrors on her journey from Guatemala to America; and Lucia, who escaped Santiago and is still looking for something. Lucia is Richard's tenant and their relationship is distant, but they are brought closer together when Richard accidentally hits Evelyn's car and she comes to his house seeking for help. As they try to help their stories come to the surface and Allende frequently flits between the past and the present, as well as between the different characters. Although this can initially be a little bit confusing, it really pays off as it shows how many hidden depths every person has, how much suffering hides behind a face and how much we may have in common despite our vast differences. As Allende unravels their backstories, the reader becomes more and more invested in these characters and more desperate for their problem to resolve itself.

Most of Isabel Allende's books that I have read were of that most wonderful of genres, Magical Realism. In the Midst of Winter is not that, but rather falls along the lines of Historical Fiction. However, Allende manages to infuse many of its scenes with a similar magic and beauty. Her South-America is one of both wonder and fear, just as her people are both horrid and loving. She maintains that fine balance for most of the book, and it is a truly fine balance to strike. I'm about to talk about something which the blurb already mentions and I therefore feel I can discuss as well, but it is technically a spoiler so if you really don't want to know, perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph. A large part of In the Midst of Winter is dedicated to the "love story" between Richard and Lucia and I simply couldn't have cared less for it. Usually this is a criticism I direct at YA novels and I'm frustrated that it applies so well in this case as well. Allende has a fascinating story that allows her to dig into some really crucial topics and yet I have to care for this love story? Both of those characters are more interesting apart from each other, and actually Evelyn is more interesting than either of them. I felt like Allende's focus on this betrayed the novel's potential and also went against some of the characterisation she had put in place. It really didn't work for me and left me disappointed in the novel. It may be completely different for other readers, but it felt utterly unnecessary to me.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I loved certain aspects of In the Midst of Winter and it has shook parts of me to the core. Allende's novel holds some crucial lessons about the truth of the fate of refugees. However, I felt some of Allende's plot choices betrayed what the novel could have been. I would recommend it to those interested in South-America and refugees, as well as Historical Fiction.